Complementary therapy

This page explains what complementary therapy is and some of the things to think about before trying one. It focusses on massage, a complementary therapy that people affected by lymphoma often ask about. We also tell you a bit about some of the other popular types.

On this page

What is complementary therapy?
How might it help me?
Choosing a complementary therapy
Other complementary therapies
Choosing a therapist
Will I have to pay?

What is complementary therapy?

Complementary therapies are used in addition to your hospital treatment, not instead. They aim to improve mental and physical wellbeing. Many people find the experience of having the complementary therapy itself pleasant.

You may also hear about ‘alternative therapies’. These are used instead of conventional hospital treatments. There is no evidence that alternative therapies are effective in treating lymphoma or any type of cancer – some might even interfere with conventional treatments.The NHS only recommends alternative therapies for a very small number of health conditions and these do not include lymphoma. 

You can read more about complementary and alternative therapies on the NHS Choices website.

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How might complementary therapy help me?

Complementary therapies cannot cure your lymphoma – be suspicious of promises that they can or might. Many people do find they help them to relax and cope with their feelings and emotions though.

Some research suggests that complementary therapies may also help to:

  • control symptoms such as nausea (feeling sick)
  • reduce your sense of pain
  • reduce fatigue 
  • lessen feelings of anxiety 
  • improve your overall psychological wellbeing.

There is some evidence that relaxation therapy and meditation can help with stress.

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Choosing a complementary therapy

Choosing a complementary therapy is often a case of seeing what appeals to you and perhaps trying a few. Massage and aromatherapy are popular types of complementary therapy for people living with cancer.

Always consult your medical team before you try a complementary therapy. They might also be able to help with choosing one – you could ask if they can suggest a certain type based on your needs and preferences. Our helpline team will also be happy to talk through ideas with you.

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Massage is a popular complementary therapy that uses touch and pressure to work the muscles and soft tissues. It can also give your blood circulation a boost. It can help your lymphatic system get rid of waste, but does not treat or cure your lymphoma.

Is it safe to have a massage?

People with lymphoma often ask whether it is safe to have a massage – they worry that it could spread the lymphoma through their body. Little research has been done into massage specifically for people with lymphoma but as far as we are aware, there is nothing to say that gentle massage is unsafe. A typical foot massage, for example, is only equivalent to walking on a pebbly beach. We do strongly advise you to speak to your nurse or doctor about whether it is safe for you to have a massage at this time, however. They will take into account any other health conditions you have that could make massage unsuitable for you.

In general, doctors advise you to:

  • Limit your massages to 20-30 minutes if you have finished treatment in the last few months.
  • Avoid areas of the body that are the focus of any active treatment (e.g. radiotherapy).
  • Ask the therapist to keep the pressure light – avoid heavy massage techniques such as Swedish massage and Turkish massage.
  • Remember that your skin might be sensitive. For example, if you have had radiotherapy, massage could irritate your skin, especially if oils are used. If your blood platelet count is low (a common side effect of chemotherapy treatment), you might bruise easily.

The benefits of each massage may only last for a short time but many people say they feel very relaxed during and after a massage. Some people find they have a more restful night’s sleep afterwards and that they feel better in general. How frequently it is safe to have a massage will depend on your individual circumstances and the type of massage you are having. Speak to a member of your medical team for further advice.

You can find a reputable massage therapist in your area on the Council for Soft Tissue Therapies (GCMT) website.

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What other complementary therapies are there?

There are lots of different types of complementary therapy. Generally speaking, more research is needed into complementary therapies and how they could help people living with cancer. Below are some of the most common types and how they might help you.

Note: Always speak to a member of your medical team before you try a complementary therapy.


Acupuncture uses fine needles, which are inserted into parts of your body. There is some evidence that acupuncture can help with nausea and vomiting as side effects of chemotherapy. It may also provide some pain relief. Sometimes, acupuncture is offered by the NHS but mostly you will have to pay for it. As with all complementary therapies, speak to a member of your medical team before you decide whether to have acupuncture – if you have a low platelet or white blood cell count, you could be at greater risk of bleeding or infection.

The British Acupuncture Council has more information about how acupuncture could help you. There is also an online search tool to help you find an acupuncturist.


Aromatherapy uses essential oils (that come from plants and flowers) to improve your wellbeing. Aromatherapy can be used alongside other complementary therapies such as massage and acupuncture. More research is needed to look specifically at the effects of aromatherapy on improving quality of life for cancer patients. There is, however, some evidence that it may help to bring down anxiety and pain levels in the short-term. 

Art therapy

Art therapy helps people to express their thoughts and feelings through art forms such as painting, sculpture, drama, poetry and dance. There is little research into how art therapy helps people affected by cancer but some studies show it reduces tiredness. Also, people do often say that it helps to improve their emotional wellbeing.

You will find more information about art therapy and finding an art therapist on The British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) website.

Music therapy

The idea behind music therapy is that we all respond to music. Music therapists help people to connect with music as a way of expressing themselves. Although more research is needed, there is some evidence that music therapy may help people living with cancer by lowering pain levels and anxiety. It may also help to lift your mood and improve your quality of life.

Read how music helped Reem cope with chemotherapy.

You can learn more about music therapy and find a therapist on the British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT) website.


During hypnotherapy, your body is very relaxed but your mind is still active. Although you go into a trance-like state, you remain fully in control – a bit like when you are in a daydream. Research shows that hypnotherapy may help with nausea and vomiting as a side effect of chemotherapy. It may also help to reduce your sense of pain.

The Hypnotherapy directory gives more information about hypnotherapy and finding a hypnotherapist.


Meditation helps to calm the mind and body. There are lots of different types of meditation – many of them involve movement and all of them encourage relaxation.

Further research is needed but studies suggest that meditation can help to improve the wellbeing of people living with cancer. It may help to improve your mood and concentration, and to lower depression and anxiety.

NHS Choices gives some simple examples of relaxation techniques you can try at home. 

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Choosing a therapist

It is important to tell your complementary therapist that you have lymphoma.

In the UK, most complementary therapists (with the exception of osteopaths and chiropractors) do not have to have specific basic training. They might, however, be a qualified health care professional or have done training to provide them with the knowledge to work with people affected by lymphoma. For your safety, it is very important to choose your therapist carefully. 

When choosing a therapist, it is a good idea to think:

  • What qualifications do they have? You can usually find this information in their leaflets or website. Although there is no set ‘gold standard’, you could ask whether they have any specific training (shown by certificates) in adapting their therapies for people who have been affected by cancer. 
  • What experience do they have? How long they have been practising for and have they treated people with cancer? Some private therapists may decline to treat you if they have not done additional training to adapt their treatments to people affected by cancer. 
  • Are they a member of a professional organisation? Again, this information would usually be in their leaflets or on their website. Membership of a professional organisation shows a level of commitment to their profession, including taking the issue of insurance seriously.
  • Do they have appropriate insurance that allows them to provide treatment for people with lymphoma?
  • Can your medical team suggest a therapist? Some hospitals offer complementary therapies or can give you a list of recommended places to try.

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Will I have to pay?

Some complementary therapies are available on the NHS and are offered in hospitals and GP surgeries. Mostly, though, you would need to find a private therapist and pay for the treatment yourself. The cost of treatment varies from place to place but as a rough guide, prices for a 25–30 minute massage start at around £20 (based on 2015 prices).

There may be a local cancer centre, hospice or charity that offers complementary therapies free of charge. Speak to your Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) or key worker to see if they know of any near to where you live.


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Further reading

Related content

Cancer Research UK

Cancer Research UK has information about many different complementary therapies for people living with cancer.

Macmillan Cancer Support

Macmillan Cancer Support has an online search tool to help you find a cancer information centre near you.